This past June I made my first trip to Paris, intent on soaking up all the culture and history I could in the five days I was there. After becoming overwhelmed with the Louvre after a few hours (but still managing to hit all the APES**T hotspots, because, priorities), we ventured to the Musée d'Orsay and instantly fell in love.
The museum is housed in an old train station and packed to the rafters with artwork from every notable name from Degas to Van Gogh to Seurat. And, unlike the Louvre, it can be explored in the span of one afternoon. But, the truly awe-inspiring point of interest is the museum’s collection of impressionist work located on the very top floor. The walls are lined with paintings from Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, Cassatt, and more.
Having only a cursory grasp on art history I perused the collection on a purely aesthetic level and while I soon realized I really love impressionist artwork and it also quickly became clear that impressionists really loved chrysanthemums. One of the side effects of this job is that I’ve become especially attuned to flowers around me. In general, flowers were a favored subject of impressionist painters, but as I wandered throughout the exhibit one flower kept popping up: the chrysanthemum.
Image: Tulip fields in Holland by Claude Monet
Impressionism is characterized by a focus on capturing the impression (hence the name) of a subject, rather than an exact copy more in line with realism. Impressionists experimented with capturing the way light affects what we see. Most importantly, impressionist paintings featured scenes of everyday life. For a long time paintings were reserved for “important” subjects like royalty and religious figures; great battles; and ancient myths. Impressionists took the same care and elevated the mundane, like a farmscape or a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers.
So flowers are a common impressionist subject, but why chrysanthemums in particular?
Chrysanthemums have a long history, originating in Japan in the 8th century. The flower became entwined in Japanese history and the Imperial Seal of Japan depicting a chrysanthemum and the monarchy is actually known as the Chrysanthemum Throne. The chrysanthemum began to be cultivated in China in the 15th century and by 1630 there were more than 500 different types of chrysanthemums. The flower was introduced to Europe in the 17th century and Karl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, gave it the name chrysanthemum. The name comes from the Greek word “chryos” meaning gold and “anthemon” meaning flower.
In the Victorian era (1837-1901), when assigning meanings to flowers was all the rage, chrysanthemums came to represent friendship or well wishes for someone in need of rest. In later years chrysanthemums have continued to represent friendship or non-romantic love as well as support from your family and loved ones; cheerfulness and good spirits, including cheering up a sad person; rest and recovery after a long trial or challenge; enduring life and rebirth, especially the birth of a child; and loyalty and devotion, both romantic and platonic.
During WWI (1914-1918) chrysanthemums were chosen to adorn the tombs of fallen soldiers, leading to enduring associations of chrysanthemums as a funeral flower.
And while all of that is fascinating, it doesn’t quite explain why the chrysanthemums were so featured in Impressionism, which experienced its height from the 1870s to the early 1900s. It may just come down to the simple fact of season.
Image: Chrysanthemums by Claude Monet
Flowers were extremely popular among impressionist painters, from cut flowers to fields of flowers and even ponds full of flowers. However, most flowers bloom naturally in the spring, meaning during that season the options of flowers to paint are endless leading to various type of flowers being painted. Chrysanthemums, on the other hand, bloom in the fall and into the early winter when most other flowers have died. Therefore, if a painter was looking to examine how light hits petals in November, chrysanthemums were the only choice. A narrower field of options means an abundance of chrysanthemum paintings.
This is all just conjecture of course. It’s just as likely that impressionist painters happened to have a lot of friends who enjoyed expressing that friendship through bouquets of flowers, or they happened to find the exotic-ness of the relatively new flower more interesting than the flowers they’d seen their whole lives.
Like all the great mysteries of life, we may never know. But, at least we can enjoy the fact that, whatever the reason, the fascination with chrysanthemums led to numerous masterpieces of one of the most beautiful flowers.